Diana Zoe Coop stands beside her painting “Frida Kahlo’s Garden.” (photo by Olga Livshin)
Diana Zoe Coop paints gardens. She paints them on canvas and paper. She paints them on costumes and wall panels. Her new show at the Zack Gallery, The Artist’s Garden, is an explosion of colours and shapes that sprout not only from nature, but from the garden of the artist’s imagination.
“All my life, I painted,” she said in an interview with the Jewish Independent. She studied for her bachelor of fine arts at the University of Manitoba, continued her education at Syracuse University in New York and finished her postgraduate specialty training at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, England. She graduated with a degree in printmaking and thought herself more a graphic designer than a painter, but, as time passed, she gradually switched to painting.
“I didn’t always have access to a printer studio and equipment,” she explained. “Without it, I gravitated towards painting.”
Her favourite subjects are gardens and flowers. “People send me photos of beautiful gardens, the places they live or the places they travel,” she said. “These photos feed me ideas and often become paintings. My own travels also result in paintings.”
During her most recent trip to Mexico, in 2016, she visited Frida Kahlo’s home. Again.
“I’ve visited Frida’s home many times,” said Coop. “I always loved her art, felt an affinity for Kahlo’s work. She painted what she knew, even when she couldn’t move from her bed. I also paint what I know: my garden or the forest behind my house. Someone sent me a photo of a fiord, and I painted it…. Many of my paintings have a distinct blue colour. It is the colour of Frida’s house. She had walls painted with it, and this particular blue bleeds into my paintings.”
Coop’s paintings explore far beyond blue. In the gallery, her pieces are an explosion of hues and forms, bright arabesques of brushwork interspaced with dazzling sprinklings of gold and silver. The collective work is the representation of a garden through the lens of the artist’s perception.
“Recently, I read an interesting quote that I felt really defined the creative process,” said Coop. “It was written by Gordon Atkins, the renowned Canadian architect. He said something like this: ‘I don’t think we create. I think we interpret and I think our interpretations are the result of all the visual and actual experiences we go through.’ This seems to me to be an accurate definition of what happens when we paint or draw or sculpt. We are the storytellers of our generation. We make real and tangible our thoughts and emotions, our visceral interactions with the landscape around us.”
Many of the images in the show are mixed media collages, with pansies applied to the paint and bright crystals bringing sparkle to the compositions. “I grow pansies in my garden. It’s not easy to care for them, especially through the winters, and I do need many of them for my paintings,” Coop said.
Coop also uses art to convey her memories of “the myriad experiences of decades of relationships. And, most sadly, the profound losses of people I loved,” she said. “There were friends who passed away before their time, far too early and far too young.
“Roberta Mickelson inspired me to paint the wild gardens of my discontent and my anger, an anger directed at the unfairness of her life cut short. She was a talented artist herself, and it pained me to think that she could not paint anymore.
“And my friend Shelley Dyer, who passed, tragically, a year ago, was a beacon of brightness, beauty and creativity. Shelley loved the garden and all creatures great and small. Her laughter still echoes in my mind, and these paintings bear witness to the questions I asked myself every day, as I struggled to comprehend where she was now. One day, it just came to me: she was right here with me, in my paintings.”
Coop’s works hang in private and corporate collections in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy, Australia, Bulgaria, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Serbia, France and Finland. But painting pictures is only part of her creative journey. She also designs unique costumes for rhythmic gymnastics, dance, circus, aerial and skating. For years, many Canadian athletes wore her designs at international competitions, including at the Olympic Games.
“A girl gymnast once saw my paintings and said naively that they looked like her costume. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was the other way around,” Coop said with a smile.
Her costume design business started as a personal necessity. “My daughters were gymnasts when they were young. I made costumes for them. Their friends on the team saw the costumes, liked them and asked me to help them with their costumes. And the word spread.”
In addition to making costumes, Coop volunteers as a judge of rhythmic gymnastics. “I studied for it, took an exam. Since 1997,” she said, “when I became an internationally qualified judge, I’ve traveled all over the world to judge the competitions.”
But art remains her passion and her joy. “I can’t stand when I don’t paint,” she confessed. “I become very cranky. Painting for me is as much a physical release as an emotional one. I need it. I don’t like being still. That’s why I enjoy working in my garden when I don’t paint. And I dance. I dance salsa and zumba, with their lively music, but I paint in silence.”
Coop sees her paintings as a reminder to the ones who come after her. “As we grow older, we hope to leave a part of ourselves behind,” she said. “Through our interactions, our deeds, our love of family and friends, and the people we meet, even briefly, we all attempt to be remembered. I consider making art the definitive memory-maker. Centuries after I depart from this visceral world, my art will still be a testament that I was here now.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].